They called him the teflon president until one day it was no longer true.

South African President Jacob Zuma’s last days in office were spent behind closed doors with the man about to usurp him, trying to negotiate a soft exit as head of State, before a defiant stance and refusal to recognise his role in very public scandals drew the wrath of the political party which he had called home for decades.

Soon-to-be-shorn of the powers and privileges – and in Zuma’s case, the levers to manipulate, muddy and delay key processes and appointments that come with high office – he reportedly made a list of demands as he sought to preserve remnants of the fiefdom he had built up around his presidency. 

A three to six-month exit period, immunity from prosecution on corruption charges, indemnity in the probe into state capture, protection for family members, personal security arrangements beyond that stipulated by government regulations, preservation of pension and other presidential benefits were all said to be part of the bargain he sought from Cyril Ramaphosa, the man who succeeded him as president of the ruling African National Congress (ANC), and is set to do so now as head of State.
 
The ruling party’s chairman Gwede Mantashe had fittingly called the negotiations “the end game”. 

The politician who wove his way through a myriad scandals, including a charge of rape, corruption charges, the large-scale capture of state entities, lavish government spending on his rural homestead, the flouting of his constitutional obligations, and the appointment of unfit acolytes to key state jobs – with the aim of protecting himself and enabling the looting of the State – found himself in a corner.

The loss of power, first within the party and then over the state, has come to pass, but Zuma finally also faces the real likelihood that 783 charges of fraud, racketeering and money-laundering that were shelved before he became president will be reinstated. 

How he evaded standing trial for allegedly receiving hundreds of illicit payments for so long, is a study in crude political chess that put countless more sophisticated political opponents into checkmate.

Nearly a decade ago, Zuma’s contacts in the intelligence structures slipped him tapes of wiretapped phone calls that were then used by his political allies as leverage to have the charges withdrawn, paving the way for him to be elected SA president in April 2009. From there, he used every legal mechanism to drag out a review of the decision to drop the charges, while filling the prosecution service with loyalists until it lost all public trust. 

From his earliest days in the ANC in the 1960s, Zuma drifted into the then banned liberation movement’s military and intelligence structures. He joined the movement as a teenager with no formal schooling, who grew up herding cattle in rural KwaZulu-Natal, but became politically conscientised in visits to family in Durban.

He took part in sabotage operations and was arrested while leaving the country for military training in Zambia, and was sentenced to ten years on Robben Island for conspiring to overthrow the apartheid government. 

After his release in 1975, he returned to the movement’s underground structures, slipping into neighbouring states, and eventually becoming the movement’s head of intelligence in Lusaka, Zambia. Zuma’s biographers call this period the missing years because of the sketchy details, which include a stint of military training in the Soviet Union.

In 1991, Ramaphosa took charge of the ANC’s negotiations with the white regime. And as the apartheid edifice finally began to crumble, Zuma was relieved of his post as head of intelligence boss. 

Zuma’s years as the ANC’s top securocrat, especially when in charge of the party’s counter-intelligence structures, made him a man to be feared and respected, both within his own ranks and in the eyes of the apartheid state. It gave him access to highly confidential information that would serve as valuable political currency for years to come, but crucially also honed his skills in the darker arts of political gamesmanship.

There are multiple accounts of brutal excesses in ANC camps in exile, with the Zuma name never far from such allegations. His character flaws, which were to be revealed more starkly in later years, were in evidence already, but at the time there were greater political aspirations at play and an enemy in apartheid South Africa to conquer. 

After his return from exile, Zuma was for years largely relegated to his home province, and as ANC chairman in KwaZulu-Natal he went to work calming a deadly conflict between supporters of his party and the largely Zulu ethnic Inkatha Freedom Party which the apartheid regime had fomented.

It was Nelson Mandela who handpicked him for the task and his Zulu traditionalism helped to open channels of communication with the IFP leadership. In 2003, a newspaper remarked that he was the only senior ANC figure who could wear animal skins with credibility and sit down with the region’s monarch, King Goodwill Zwelithini.

Zuma’s success as peacemaker was widely lauded in the party and added to his burgeoning public stature. To this day, some in the ANC were prepared to overlook his excesses for his role in halting the bloodshed in KZN which had spilled over into the economic heartland of Gauteng and claimed thousands of lives. 

His political ascent was now in full swing and he was put forward as the ANC’s candidate for the KZN premiership in the first democratic elections in 1994. The IFP though took the province, and together with the then National Party in the Western Cape, were the only parts of South Africa not under ANC rule as the party of Mandela swept to power on a wave of euphoria following the overthrow of apartheid. 

He became the Member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Economic Affairs and Tourism in the province and it was in this role that the first allegations of corruption against him emerged. By then he was in the senior ranks of the ANC, occupying the provincial and national chairperson positions, and it wasn’t long before he was elected deputy president at the party’s 1997 Mafikeng conference.

When the 1999 elections came and Thabo Mbeki outmanoeuvered Ramaphosa to become State president, Zuma became deputy president.    

His fondness for money, an attribute that had troubled Mandela, finally caught up with him. His financial advisor Schabir Shaik was jailed for soliciting bribes in a series of billion rand arms deals the country made in the late 1990s and the court found that the two had entertained a corrupt relationship. 

The ruling gave Mbeki cause to fire Zuma as deputy president and their long-running rivalry became an open war for control of the party that left it lastingly divided. 

When Zuma went on trial for raping the HIV-positive daughter of a former struggle comrade, Zuma claimed the charges had been engineered by Mbeki’s allies and his supporters waved placards outside the Johannesburg High Court reading “Burn the Bitch”. He spent his 64th birthday in court and was ridiculed for years for testifying that he avoided infection by showering after sex.

But he was acquitted on the rape charge, and to the eyes of his power base in the party, his claims of political victimhood were vindicated. The intellectual but insecure Mbeki would prove no match for Zuma’s easy relatability or his ruthlessness. 

Stories about Zuma told of two sides – the man who was forever late for official functions because he lingered to chat to ordinary people, and the one who was deaf to questions about the torture and killing of dissident Umkhonto we Sizwe (ANC armed wing) cadres in a base camp in Angola. 

Zuma used the rift between Mbeki and the anti-capitalist left wing of the ruling alliance and raised the spectre of tribalism, claiming that opposition to his bid for the leadership of the ANC was an anti-Zulu plot by the Xhosa elite of the party. 

It was part of a reflex to use any criticism, be that of his polygamy, clumsy policies or lack of education, as an attack on his culture or “African values”, as opposed to the more urbane and highly educated Mbeki.

When he was finally elected president in 2009, having seen the scrapping of the corruption case, Zuma’s political debts were vast and it showed in the sheer size of his Cabinet and the vagueness of his policies.  

In his first term, the scandal broke of how more than R200 million in public funding had paid for additions to his private home in Nkandla, including a swimming pool and cattle kraal. A cover-up ensued in which ANC ministers and MPs concluded that he did not, and could not, have known how a project that started as a security upgrade spiralled out of control.

Zuma’s stock response to questions in Parliament was a chuckle and denial, however implausible. But the game changed after the ANC expelled Julius Malema, the radical former ANC youth league leader who had helped him topple Mbeki, and who built the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the wake of the killing by police of 34 striking miners in Marikana.

The president did not go to the mining settlement to face the families of the miners gunned down in the worst police atrocity in post-apartheid South Africa, but Malema did and the EFF won the third place in the next national elections. 

Zuma had spawned a politically deadly enemy with street-fighting skills to match his and an inside knowledge of the ANC under his rule. Tellingly, Malema was able to follow the money and increasingly it pointed to links between the country’s biggest parastatals, Zuma’s family and the Gupta brothers whom Zuma defiantly acknowledged as friends.

When he ignored their questions in the National Assembly, the EFF heckled until they were dragged out by police and this, coupled with the Marikana massacre, drew cries that two decades after apartheid had been toppled, the country had become a security state again. 

And as under apartheid, the country’s judges found themselves on political terrain as the opposition went to court on a near weekly basis to reverse the administration’s decisions, from turning the state broadcaster into a propaganda tool, to giving fugitive Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir free passage. Zuma had subverted or simply ignored all other institutions that could have held him in check, including Parliament. 

The network of patronage meant that as evidence piled up that his ministers had become pawns of the controversial Gupta family, there was never clear proof they were acting on direct orders from Zuma. 

But politically, the president then over-played his hand as he used a fake intelligence report to fire Pravin Gordhan as finance minister, in a battle for control of the public purse many blamed on a rush to conclude a nuclear power deal far bigger than the arms deal of 20 years earlier.

Populist to the end, Zuma used his last speech as ANC president in December to announce free higher education, though there is no money in the budget to implement the policy. 

When Ramaphosa narrowly won the December 2017 ANC leadership contest over Zuma’s former wife Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the writing was on the wall. His army of loyalists realised they had to look beyond him for their own survival, and to all intents and purposes he was now answerable to Ramaphosa as the new head of the ANC. 

Zuma might have attempted more reckless public announcements or a Cabinet reshuffle, but that door was slammed in his face as the party’s top leaders asked him to step down as president and the party ratcheted up the pressure.

In one of his final plays, he looked up his old foe turned ally King Zwelithini. The visit was vintage Zuma, and signalled an implied threat of violence from supporters in his tribal homeland. 

But Ramaphosa did not blink and for Zuma the end had come. There were a couple more statements of defiance, but late on the night of February 14 Zuma formally announced the end of his rein as president.

– African News Agency (ANA), Editing by Lindiz van Zilla,